Carrie Underwood – “Just a Dream”
Songwriters: Hillary Lindsey, Steve McEwan, Gordie Sampson
I’ve been more than critical of Carrie Underwood’s bombastic vocals on Carnival Ride, but, as I noted in my review of that album, there is one song on which Carrie’s performance really works, and that’s “Just a Dream,” Carnival Ride‘s deserving fourth single. Deserving not only because of its intrinsic quality, but because it’s a song that needs to be examined outside of the confines of an album on which it unfairly blends in with the scenery.
Of course, when you pluck a song out of its comfy album home and really scrutinize it, you don’t always like what you find, and I suspect that many are going to feel that way about “Just a Dream.” The first verse of this song is an absolute mess, a confusing absolute mess that took several careful listens to resolve.
Let me clear up any confusion by summarizing the narrative: a young woman (“it was two weeks after the day she turned 18″) is ostensibly going to get married (“all dressed in white, going to the church that night”) to someone who she hasn’t seen in quite awhile (“she had his box of letters in the passenger seat”) but when she arrives receives the horrible surprise (“and when the church doors opened up wide she put her veil down trying to hide the tears oh / she just couldn’t believe it”) that her husband-to-be has in fact been killed in military action (“she heard the trumpets from the military band / and the flowers fell out of her hands / Baby, why’d you leave me, why’d you have to go / I was counting on forever, now I’ll never know…. Everybody’s saying he’s not coming home now”).
Believe it or not, it took four listens — four careful listens, plus some reflection — for me to write such a cogent summary. “Just a Dream” is a strange song in that it can be appreciated by those who don’t care about the lyrics, those who scrutinize the lyrics, but not by those who merely listen to the lyrics. It could have been a jarring, epic song, but instead it’s just a confusing song, and I think that I have a handle on what went wrong.
The subject of “Just a Dream” is receiving the surprise of her life, in a very bad way, and the song ought to reflect that. Instead, writers Hillary Lindsey, Steve McEwan and Gordie Sampson send mixed messages from the beginning. “Night” clashes with “white” — a church at night is highly suggestive of a funeral, to which no one wears white — and things just get more confusing from there. “She had his box of letters in the passenger seat / six pence in her shoe / something borrowed something blue” are mixed metaphors that don’t resolve any of the ambiguity surrounding our young girl’s expectations. To make matters worse, Mark Bright’s arrangement is foreboding from the first note and Carrie’s vocal performance on the broken first verse sounds conflicted and confused, just like the writing.
Metaphors aside, the premise of a woman who thinks she’s walking into her wedding actually walking into her lover’s funeral is simply implausible. It’s the kind of implausibility that could be quite startling and memorable if done right, but it’s not done right here. It’s a terrible swing and miss by the writers, but give credit where it’s due: they weren’t afraid to swing for the fences, and Underwood and Bright were willing to record (and release) a risky song that deviates significantly from the Carrie canon and the Carnival Ride fodder.
And once you get past that first verse…wow, what a song. Underwood really finds her voice as the emotion boils over during the second chorus, and while the writers don’t aim for nearly as much in the second verse, they at least stay out of their own way and give us a nice image: “then they handed her a folded up flag / and she held on to all she had left of him oh and what could’ve been / and then guns rang one last shot and it felt like a bullet in her heart.”
“Just a Dream” is not perfect. In fact, it’s deeply, deeply broken. But the single is a great vocal performance of a risky song, and I respect that.
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